One of Orwell's purposes in this essay is to show the cultural dilemma posed by colonialism ( or imperialism, as Orwell puts it). In the essay, Orwell finds himself being the enemy within another culture. The paradox is that Orwell sympathizes with the Burmese people and their desire to overthrow their British oppressors and yet he also hates the people who criticize and abuse him. He has mixed feelings about colonialism and its abuse of power and yet he follows the rules and does what he is supposed to do. Thus, his message is that colonialism is inherently contradictory--just as contradictory as his encounter with the elephant.
In "Shooting an Elephant," Orwell argues that abusive governments have a negative effect on people at home and abroad. This idea is based on his experiences as a British colonial police officer in Burma (a British colony) in the 1920s. When Orwell is asked by his boss to take care of an elephant which is ravaging the local town, for instance, Orwell comes to an important realisation about the British government: that its imperial policy (which creates British supremacy and absolute power) does not really benefit anybody. In fact, imperial policy exploits the native population by forcing them to become the objects of British power. Similarly, it also exploits colonial officers, like Orwell, by forcing them in a specific and prescribed way as they carry out their duties on behalf of the government. That is, to act as a "sahib;" a dictatorial figure who must go against his natural instincts. For Orwell, this means shooting the elephant, even though he had no real desire to do so.